Speech to the St Orans College High Achiever Breakfast

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Tēnā koutou kātoa
Te whare e tū nei, tēnā koe
E ngā iwi i huihui nei
Ngā mihi mahana ki a koutou

Thank you for the invitation to be here today.

Can I start by saying congratulations on your academic results in 2015. You’ve all worked very hard and have the achievements to show for it.

I’d also like you to wish you best wishes for the year ahead. My Year 12 year at school was a whirlwind of activity and I’ve no doubt it will be the same for you.

You’ll be trying to balance so many things - study, extra-curricula activities, sometimes part-time “real” work, along with a social life, and of course starting to think about life when you leave school.

My only advice would be to make sure that you keep everything in balance and everything in perspective. Study’s important but it’s also important to enjoy a social life; and everything else on offer at the great school that is St Oran’s. Likewise while at the end of the day, nobody in twenty years is going to really care what you got in NCEA Level 2 English; it is definitely true that in the next few years your marks WILL matter. They open doors for you all over the place – whether that be at university, in a trade qualification, and into the workforce.

I thought what I would talk about today is the sort of world that you’re going to enter when you leave school.

Malcolm Turnbull, the Prime Minister of Australia, calls today the most exciting time to be alive in human history. He’s right.

You’d be forgiven for looking at the media, and thinking that the world is a pretty depressing place.

An utterly horrific extremist cult called ISIS controls territory in the Middle East, intent on establishing an Islamic theocracy straight out of the Middle Ages.

In the USA, Donald Trump – who wants to ban Muslims from entering America, make them register on a government database, and build a wall to stop Mexicans from entering the US – is currently the preferred national candidate for the Republican nomination.

The global economy is still very unstable, with commodity prices, particularly oil, at record lows, China’s growth is still spectacular but slowly reducing; and Euro-zone growth anaemic and fuelled by debt and deficits.

But actually there’s never been a better time to be alive.

By almost every objective measure, 2015 was the safest, healthiest, happiest year in human history. It’s human to focus on the negative.

Consider these facts:

Child mortality has fallen by half since 1990, as has maternal mortality;

Global life expectancy is 70 years and climbing;

In September 2000 the heads of 147 governments pledged that they would halve the proportion of people on earth living in the direst poverty by 2015, using the poverty rate in 1990 as a baseline. The goal has been achieved. Extreme poverty was halved in just ten years. Poverty is declining at the fastest rate in human history;

At the beginning of the 20th century just over 10% of the world population lived in democratic countries – now it is more than 50%;

Global inequality between developing and developed countries is decreasing.

So my first overall point is that despite what you may hear or see in the media; this is a great time to be alive.

Secondly, the world is changing rapidly.

Every generation thinks the world is changing quickly at dizzying speed, and every generation thinks the change it is experiencing is quicker than ever before.

That’s as true today as it was for my generation; and my parents’ generation.

But you will genuinely be leaving school at a time when technology is rapidly changing the way we live our lives.

When I was at school, I didn’t have a cellphone. Now almost all of you carry the equivalent of a supercomputer around in your pocket.

When I was at primary school, we had one computer in the corner of the classroom where we could play Where in the World is Carmen San Diego. Nowadays, kids bring their own ipads, surface pros or laptops to class. Kids as young as 12 are self-directing their own learning; filling out google spreadsheets with what they achieved each day; and emailing their teacher their homework.

Human ingenuity and innovation coupled with the digital economy has created profoundly disruptive new companies and industries.

The world’s biggest accommodation provider owns no accommodation.

The world’s biggest taxi company owns no taxis.

The world’s most valuable retailer, has no inventory.

The world’s most popular media owner, creates no content of its own

Widespread uptake of electric cars, a dream since the 1970s, is in reach. I drove one the other day. Driverless cars are on the way.

Like everyone in this new world, government is grappling with the important public policy questions of new technology, digital disruption, and the new economy.

To take just a few examples, social media has made online bullying easier and nastier. Many of you will know that intuitively.

We need to consider what the implications are of technology on tertiary education. Is the concept of universities as bricks and mortar-based institutions anachronistic? In the future; will all courses actually be delivered online, with thousands or even millions watching in their own time; learning at their own pace? Some of you will have seen the Khan Academy videos. Is this the future?

Another important question is what the appropriate role for government is in fostering the sort of innovative, high-tech companies that everyone wants to see in their economy – companies like Xero, like Orion Health, like Vend. Or closer to home, the great tech companies in the Hutt (or as I call it, “Technology Valley”) like Tekron, Fraser Engineering, and Pertronic Industries.

I can assure you that your elected representatives are doing hard thinking about these important questions.

My challenge to you is to embrace this new world. The old economy is never coming back, and New Zealand cannot insulate itself from new technological trends and forces, in the same way that in the 1970s we couldn’t – in the end – insulate ourselves from global economic forces.

So, back yourself. New Zealand’s a small country at the bottom of the world – but every day there are thousands of New Zealanders around the world doing amazing things in commerce, in the arts, in sport. They’ve backed themselves to succeed. There’s no reason why anyone here can’t do the same.

Finally, let me just leave with you the message that excuses will get you nowhere. The world doesn’t owe you a living. This is a point that President Obama made recently when speaking at Morehouse College in the United States – an historically all male, all black liberal arts college.

Morehouse’s creed is “Excuses are tools of the incompetent used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.”

President Obama said the following

In today's hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world, with millions of young people from China and India and Brazil -- many of whom started with a whole lot less than all of you did -- all of them entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned.

He’s exactly right. The world’s a great place, and it’s changing at a rapid pace. Go out there and back yourself to succeed. New Zealand’s future depends on you.

Nō reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou kātoa.